Sunday, 20 November 2011

Roy Naisbitt - part 2

Roy at work on a Last Belle background

In the late summer of 1996 I'd just finished jetting back and forth between London and Los Angeles for a year and a half, directing sequences on the Warner Bros. feature film Space Jam. We were all exhausted when that movie wrapped so I decided to take a break from commercial production for a while and concentrate on my own work ... and so The Last Belle was conceived. For The Last Belle I wanted to get Roy Naisbitt involved from day one so we could develop a sequence together; but when I say 'together' I really wanted to give Roy free reign to let his pencil run with an idea, unrestricted by commercial considerations or 'client's comments'. Pure, undiluted, Roy.

One of Roy's concept drawings for the Moron Mountain sequence in Space Jam.

I'd always loved the brief flashes of Roy's imagination in the Maroon Cartoon at the beginning of Roger Rabbit, and the travelling camera shots in Richard Williams' oscar winning version of A Christmas Carol and I began to wonder what would it be like if one of these crazy perspective shots lasted not just 4 or 5 seconds, but kept going on... and on... for more than a minute?

My brief to Roy for the Underground Tunnel Sequence in The Last Belle (outlined in part 1) was simple:
1) When our drunk character falls down the steps he should plummet like he's just stepped out of an aeroplane at 20,000 feet.
2) As soon as he's dropped we (the audience) should lose all sense of what is up and what is down.
3) He needs to splat into a column at the end, and,
4) The whole shot should last roughly one minute.
Other than these four points I wanted Roy to feel free to take the sequence in whichever direction he wanted.

Roy set to work immediately, but not - as I might have imagined - at the drawing board. To begin with he started doing research. Lots and lots of research. In fact an amazing amount of research. First he took a small camcorder down into some real Underground tunnels and staggered around with the camera as if he were drunk (doubtless to the amusement of passers-by). Then we reviewed the point-of-view footage, taking sections of it and speeding it up or slowing it down to see what it felt like. Then Roy took a stills camera and photographed a variety of different stations, each with a different style of architecture. And then he photographed every possible detail that might be of use: handrails, tiles, lights, mirrors, signs, rivets and textures. From this he made up a comprehensive scrapbook of images which we both pored over and discussed. He then took all these images, all these choices, put them to one side, and for the first time reached for a pencil.

This amount of research should not have been a surprise to me because anyone who has trained under Richard Williams will be familiar with it. Even on a very, very tight schedule I've known Dick to spend days collecting research before he goes anywhere near a pencil, and although in the meantime the producers and the clients might be going crazy with worry that nothing appears to be happening, and nothing appears to be getting done, Dick would always then sit down at the drawing board and - fully loaded with information - start drawing faster, and more decisively, than you can imagine. Just so with Roy.

One afternoon Roy and I met up and decided the time was right to get going on designing this shot. Here's what happened: once Roy had absorbed and put aside the reference he laid out a long roll of cheap lining paper across the floor of his studio and, using a soft piece of charcoal, began to score long arcing lines down the length of it.

"OK. Here are the stairs. They're gonna drop down probably something like this."  Swish!   Swish!  A six foot section of paper was filled in seconds with loose lines - no details, no steps indicated, just rhythmic swooshes.

"What do you think?" Roy asked me, and turned back to consider it himself. Then he added, "I think it needs to be longer."

So he tore out the last half of the drawing, discarded it, and re-attached the blank roll of paper to the start of the drawing again. Swish! Swish! Longer swooping lines. The sticking tape and the paper were covered in charcoal finger marks and there were footprints along the drawing where Roy was pacing the length of it, extending the lines, unrolling more of the blank paper. This was the closest thing to a sculptural process I'd ever seen while someone was drawing. It was physical and it was energetic.

Once Roy had got a good length of the drawing sketched out he began to pace along it, cupping his hands to approximate the area the camera would eventually see. He thought it looked pretty good and got me to pace the length of it too. A few horizontal lines were added in to loosely indicate steps, and an approximation of tiles on the wall. But still to an onlooker, outside of this process, there would be little sense of the actual environment Roy was drawing; at this stage the drawing was almost symbolic of the feeling of falling, but not of an actual, structural place.

Over the following weeks Roy sketched out tighter and tighter versions of this layout, starting in coloured pencil, then graphite and finally ink. We took each of these versions and shot them, however crudely, on a video linetester, panning and rotating them under the camera to find the right speed to move over them, and all the while I was imagining how the character was going to move through this space -an interesting animation challenge as I'd have to animate the character as if he were motivating the camera move, even though the camera move would have been finalised before I even began to start drawing the character. With each pass the structure became more and more solid and details began to emerge.

The inked version of a section of background.
The artwork for the first 12 seconds of the shot alone was 35 feet long.
The camera information, which shows the lens centre and field size for
every frame of the movement.

It finally dawned on me that one of the things that makes Roy's work so unique is that he works the opposite way to many other layout artists. Rather than starting with a basic structure, a basic perspective grid, and building details up over it, Roy starts with a feeling, develops it in a kinetic way, and only afterwards tries to shoehorn the laws of perspective to it. The end result is something that appears solid and logical (Roy originally trained as a carpenter, so he understands structure brilliantly), but which is actually built upon the foundations of a dream.

John Leatherbarrow and Roy discuss how to shoot the artwork. John would
often have to repeat the camera moves several times so that different lighting
effects could be built up onto the film negative. 

Roy, with typical modesty, just claims that his drawings come out so weird because he never had a formal art school training, and therefore doesn't know all the correct rules of perspective! Whatever the case, getting to work with a visionary artist is one of the biggest kicks a director can have, and certainly one of the privileges of the job. I finally got to help create one of Roy's pieces of art, and had the chance to animate across and through its unique perspectives. Thanks Roy.


  1. Thanks Neil! I'm following your posts with increased anticipation to see your film. More, please!

  2. Undiluted genius! What an interesting glimpse into Roy's process. I like Roy even more now that I know he's a trained carpenter!

  3. The more I hear about the whole process of putting "The Last Belle" together and the more you describe of Roy's unique working methods, the more convinced I am that there's a potential book or a documentary in the making of this one short film alone.... I tip my hat to everyone who was involved - and thank all of you for helping out so much with "Setting The Scene", Fraser MacLean

  4. wow.... speechless! can't wait to see this! :D

  5. Absolutely fascinating-can't wait to see more!

  6. Another little known fact about Roy is that he nearly swam the channel in his 70's. He was pulled out of the water after 20+ hours in the water, one mile from France; the tide had changed...

    1. This is true! Roy Naisbitt: channel swimmer, special effects artist (with 2001 A Space Odyssey to his name), master carpenter, airbrush artist, visionary layout artist, and much-loved friend to so many in the industry. What a Top Man!

  7. hi how can I buy The Last Belle film ? (

    1. Hello. While The Last Belle is finishing its festival run (until the end of this year) it's not available to buy. But we are looking into further and wider distribution early in 2014 so please keep checking in with this blog for future news on that. Many thanks!